Guest Post: Ten Great Films To Get You Hooked On Pre-Code Hollywood

Trevor Jost, whom I met this past weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival, has graciously written this post, sharing with us some Pre-Code Hollywood films he hopes will get you hooked on the era.

If you are a classic film aficionado, you have probably heard the term Pre-Code; if not you are in for a real treat. The Pre-Code era lasted from about 1930 to 1934. Films from that era are shockingly different from films just a year later. Immorality runs rampant throughout films of this period. Sex, illegal drug use, prostitution, abortion, infidelity and excessive violence were all trademarks of a Pre-Code film. So if you are ready to take a foray down the path of classic film decadence, then check out this short list of Pre-Code films.

Baby Face, 1933 (dir. Alfred E. Green)

Should you sleep with your coworkers for personal gain? I’m not sure this film answers that question. But I consider this the essential Pre-Code film. It has a great cast, and is packed with Pre-Code naughtiness. Barbara Stanwyck gives a knockout performance. Also keep a look out for a young John Wayne!

Night Nurse, 1931 (dir. William A. Wellman)

Another Stanwyck film, which deals with the very important question: do Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell look good in their underwear? Yes, they do. This film deals with child murder and bootlegging, but still manages to funny in some parts. Look for a very young Clark Gable (minus his trademark mustache) and Ben Lyon. Beware of Nick the chauffeur!

Female, 1933 (dir. Michael Curtiz)

If your boss invited you back to their house after work, would you go? And then if they served you copious amounts of alcohol, so that they could sleep with you, would you be concerned? I might. Ruth Chatterton plays the head of a major auto manufacturing plant, who works hard all day, but plays harder all night. Will she find true love, or will she continue to use men to satisfy her um….well……needs?!

Three on a Match, 1932 (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)

This film is very Pre-Code. It has an all-star cast featuring Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis. Debauchery and illegal drug use are literally everywhere in this film. Be on the lookout for a pre-Duke Mantee Humphrey Bogart!

The Public Enemy, 1931 (dir. William A. Wellman)

This film is basically the story of a hoodlum’s rise and fall in world of organized crime. James Cagney lights up the screen, along with sizzling Jean Harlow and quick-witted Joan Blondell. The film includes a famous scene involving a grapefruit and the film’s climax will leave at the edge of your seat! This film also features an excessive amount of alcohol and violence, so you know it’s good.

Scarface, 1932 (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson)

This film is filled with crime, along the same lines as The Public Enemy, however it is very different. While not having as many big name stars as The Public Enemy, the cast for this film does an excellent job, making this a very dark picture. Prepare yourself for a high body count as this film ramps up the violence! Look out for Boris Karloff dressed as, well, a gangster.

Blonde Crazy, 1931 (dir. Roy Del Ruth)

I love this film, because Louis Calhern plays a guy named Dapper Dan something, I can’t remember his character’s last name, but it’s not important. What is important is that James Cagney and Joan Blondell have awesome chemistry in this film and are an absolute joy to watch together. Their banter in this film is spellbinding! And the noises that James Cagney makes crack me up.

Private Lives, 1931 (dir. Sidney Franklin)

I’m not sure what I can say about this film other than it is very funny and kind of twisted. Norma Shearer can do comedy. She shines along with Robert Montgomery as a couple so in love, they can’t stop fighting! Reginald Denny and Una Merkel are also hilarious in their supporting roles.

Footlight Parade, 1933 (dir. Lloyd Bacon)

This film has too many famous stars and bit players to list. It is an incredible film, with the added bonus of seeing James Cagney sing and dance! Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler light up the screen alongside Dick Powell. Frank McHugh is seriously funny in this film. Plus there are lots of ladies in their underwear. Whats not to love? This film has it all: non-stop action, witty dialog, dancing and comedy.

King Kong, 1933 (dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

Scantly dressed Fay Wray. That is really all I need to say about this film. You probably know the story, or have seen the remake, but this one is better because it is shorter. Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot work very well together, often times butting heads. But King Kong is really the star here and he looks fantastic! Speaking of looking fantastic, did I mention Fay Wray? She does a marvelous job of looking super hot, almost falling out of her dress and screaming (a lot).

I hope this short list has made you hungry for Pre-Code films. This list was intended as a diving board, so don’t stop with these ten; jump in to Pre-Code films head first! You will not be disappointed.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on May 6, 2011, in Classic Film, Guest Post and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. This Trevor character has some good insight but with comments like,
    “is packed with Pre-Code naughtiness.”, “If your boss invited you back to their house after work, would you go? And then if they served you copious amounts of alcohol, so that they could sleep with you, would you be concerned? I might.”, “Scantly dressed Fay Wray. That is really all I need to say about this film”. I’d say this Trevor guy needs to get laid.

  2. this is a fantastic list. i must agree all these films are great to get anyone into pre-code films especially Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Scarface, and Three on a Match. i am so happy to see a Norma Shearer film on your list b/c to me she is the queen of pre-code films. a lot of people often do not realize that King Kong is a great example of pre-code films (i must the description and reason for watching is very funny and i agree haha).

  3. Wonderful list and descriptions. These films sound delightful. And of course when I read King Kong I always think the original LOL. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I love your blog, Marya! Yours is one of my favourite film sites by far! Anyways, would you mind if I shared this post to my own blog, since this is really informative? I’ll leave the credits, of course 🙂

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